british food

Pub Food Taught Me What It Means to Be a Syrian Brit

I learned soon after moving to London from Syria that the pub is central to British life. One of my biggest surprises was to see that people took their children to pubs.

Hala Hamadi

Fish and chips served at The Lamplighter pub in the Lake District. All photos by the author.

My husband and I are sitting at the breakfast table on an exceptionally beautiful morning in the Lake District. He is enjoying a cup of tea, while I drink my coffee as usual. Our host Gareth appears with two vegetarian full English breakfasts, complete with fried eggs, vegetarian sausages, mushrooms, baked beans, hash browns, and tomatoes.

It is our first morning staying near Lake Windermere in the Lake District, the largest national park in England—home of Romantic poet William Wordsworth, children’s author Beatrix Potter, as well as countless scenic hiking spots and crystal clear lakes. We chose it as our first destination in a journey to rediscover the UK, the country I am applying to become a citizen of.

A vegetarian full English breakfast. All photos by the author.

I first moved to Britain from Syria to study for my Master’s degree and have lived in London for many years, making it my second home. I hope that travelling the country will allow me to experience more of what it means to be British, as well as prepare me for my upcoming “Life in the United Kingdom” test. The multiple-choice assessment is a requirement of anyone applying for citizenship in the UK, and includes questions on British history and culture. I’ll be sitting my test two weeks after I arrive back in London from the Lakes.

As we eat our breakfast, I ask Gareth where we can go to try more English food for lunch. He laughs, slightly surprised by the question, then says, “Well, English food is very hard to find … unless you go to a pub.”

I learned soon after moving here that the pub is central to British life. I remember during my first week in the UK, one of my biggest surprises was to see people taking their children with them to pubs. I later learned that these establishments weren’t just places to drink, they were also about socialising and community.

Heeding Gareth’s advice, my husband and I decide to go to The Lamplighter, a family-run pub in Windermere. We order non-alcoholic cocktails and look at the menu. There is a lot of choice: roast beef, veggie burgers, curry, Cumberland sausage and mash, fish of the day. We decide to start with a cheese salad, made with a trio of British cheeses—including a crumbly smoked Lancashire and deliciously pungent soft blue cheese.

Two portions of traditional fish and chips, and a cheese salad, at The Lamplighter pub in the Lake District.

I have a few contradicting thoughts when trying to choose a main course. I want it to be a traditional British dish, but does curry count as a British food? Do I want something vegetarian? Vegetarian and vegan eating is becoming more popular in Britain, but I’ve had a few failed attempts at going veggie myself—mainly because I miss the meaty dishes I grew up eating in the Middle East. I’d like to order the roast beef, but it’s not halal. Also, I think it would be more traditional to have a roast at home on a Sunday. This was introduced to me by my friend Astrid, who loved to host Sunday lunches at her house. My husband and I have adopted this tradition in our home now too—we enjoy having friends over for a roast made with halal meat.

We eventually decide to order fish and chips. A classic pub dish, it also meets the requirements of halal food. The battered cod arrives with a delicate squeeze of lemon juice, hot chips, and fresh garden peas. I think about the study guide I’ve been reading for the Life in the United Kingdom test, which states that fish and chips and roast beef are considered the traditional foods of England.

Orrest Head Viewpoint in the Lake District.

After lunch, we hike up to the Orrest Head Viewpoint, a summit close to Lake Windermere. We arrive to the top of the hill and see a breathtaking view of the lake and surrounding mountains. It brings back memories of the gorgeous mountains in Syria; hiking trips and picnics with my family back there.

I feel very happy, I feel at home. I know I will always carry inside me fond memories of Syria—it’s part of who I am. But I also love my second home that welcomed and accepted me. Becoming a British citizen means I can keep my cultural heritage and adopt aspects of life here too, enjoying freedom, democracy, and cultural diversity.

And, of course, pub meals of fish and chips.